Friday, 21 May 2010

Haruki Murakami or, a wild sheep chase

I've been meaning to write about Haruki Murakami for a while - and to include some quotes from him that haven't appeared before; in the spirit of the last few posts, which all seem to link, this seems as good a time as any. I first discovered the hugely popular Japanese author when Penguin published three of his books at the turn of the 1990s. As we've become used to his bigger, often slightly mystical, more recent work, it's easy to forget how funny the surrealistic noir of A Wild Sheep Chase, for instance, is.

I championed Murakami's work in Time Out after Harvill picked him up later that decade, beginning with what's probably still his best book, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (a couple of quotes from my reviews adorn some of their covers). So when his publishers said the great man was coming to London following the appearance of short story collection after the quake, I was desperate for a chance to meet him.

He had agreed to speak to only a handful of major papers - the Guardian, Times, Telegraph, I seem to recall - but I was told that if I came along to a party that was being hosted for him at Daunt Books, in Marylebone, I may be granted an interview. The fateful event was held a day or two after he'd run in the Boston marathon; when we met he was almost monosyllabic and his English seemed beyond broken - decimated. I had a sinking feeling; not only had I reread all his books in preparation but we had kept a spread free in the magazine at the printers that called for a quick turnaround. Considering he was reputed to be hardly forthcoming with journalists at the best of times, I couldn't see how I was going to fill it.

As it turned out, he couldn't have been more charming. When we met in his Knightsbridge hotel the following afternoon, he seemed relaxed, perhaps because it was the last interview of his visit, and was immensely open. His English was perfect, leaving the translator who joined us redundant. He happily talked about his next book, Kafka on the Shore, his spartan work routine and what it means to him to be a writer (unfortunately, again, the couple of articles I eked out of our meeting aren't on the web).

Murakami's most recent book, of course, is the non-fiction What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. While German readers can expect a translation of his latest, 1Q84, this autumn, the English-speaking world will have to wait till September 2011 for his first fiction work since 2007's After Dark. 1Q84 is said to have sold something like 1.5 million copies since its publication in Japan last year.

His position as a Japanese author has been fraught ever since he first unveiled his pop writing style in a country with a conflicted view of American influences post World War II. Murakami widely cites the 1960s anti-war movement as having been vital to his own personal growth, but acknowledges the ambiguities inherent in that position, notably as the spectre of North Korea looms: 'If something goes wrong we have to rely on the United States and their military power,' he told me. 'It's a contradiction: we are anti-war but we don't know what's going to happen next.'

His view of the world and storytelling are intertwined: 'I like to see the world through the eyes of ordinary people. The world is full of extraordinary things and extraordinary characters - I love it and that's my story. I think story is adventure - you're a protagonist and you're going to experience unexpected, unpredictable things so when the adventure finishes you have changed. I think that is the most important part of the story: you are different.

'My basic concept of the presence of the human being is he or she is lonely, he or she is by himself or herself. It's a journey and you are going to meet some people on the way and you go with him or her for a while but there will be a separation and you will be by yourself again. I think that is life, that is my basic recognition of life: it's lonely sometimes. But at least you can get a memory. I think those kind of memories - possibly warm memories - are important to your life and a story can offer you that feeling.'

1 comment:

  1. I was at a dinner part with some friends the other night, and there was a Japanese woman there (an international student who rents a room from them) who looked very nervous and quiet. Somehow Murakami came up, though, and she just came to life, beaming and chatting away about him. Huzzah for literature!